[News] Hafez Modirzadeh - A New Tune at SF State?

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Fri Nov 6 19:57:31 EST 2020

https://www.sfcv.org/article/a-new-tune-at-sf-state A New Tune at SF State?
By Andrew Gilbert - November 3, 2020

SFSU Professor Hafez Modirzadeh

When Hafez Modirzadeh
<https://music.sfsu.edu/people/faculty/hafez-modirzadeh> heard San
Francisco State University President Lynn Mahoney’s soaring words about the
school’s commitment to equity, diversity, and racial justice at the opening
convocation in August, he decided to put the institution to the test.

The School of Music’s only tenured professor versed in non-Western
traditions, he’s long felt that the highly diverse student body was
ill-served by the program’s Eurocentric focus, which is reflected in both
faculty hiring and course offerings. He laid out a far-reaching agenda to
transform the school’s curriculum and overall pedagogy in a letter that
circulated within school (and then found a wider audience when saxophonist
Francis Wong posted it on Facebook).

With the clarion call of the Black Lives Matter movement ringing in the
background, Modirzadeh described the SFSU music program as fettered by “a
deep intergenerational upholding of that archaic ‘separate but equal’ logic
that miseducates, leaving our students perpetually revolving around a
musical caste system stuck thick in ethnic myopia.”

A saxophonist and composer who has collaborated with some of jazz’s most
celebrated and influential artists, Modirzadeh seems to have struck a
chord. A series of meetings between students and faculty amplified his call
for change, and School of Music Director Cyrus Ginwala
<https://maestrocy.instantencore.com/web/bio.aspx> announced on Oct.13 the
creation of a task force made up of faculty and both current and former
students to look at every aspect of the program’s offerings.“We’re in
transformative times,” Modirzadeh said. “Not everyone is in agreement, but
we’re having a dialogue. It’s not simply that we teach all these white male
composers and we need to include some Black composers. We’ve got to address
the full-time/part-time caste system. Now we’re discussing how to
redistribute our teaching units, which comes down to income.”

Hafez Modirzadeh with students | *Credit: Andy Nozaka*

Modirzadeh is the first to acknowledge his privileged position as a tenured
professor who can advocate for radical changes without fear of
unemployment. His diagnosis of the music school’s systemic inequities
borrows a term recently applied to American racial history by Pulitzer
Prize-winning journalist Isabel Wilkerson in her new book *Caste: The
Origins of Our Discontents*

Hafez Modirzadeh | *Credit: Walter Wagner*Describing the music school as
beset by casteism, he wants to change not just how and what traditions get
taught. Inextricably linked to the dominance of European classical music,
he says, is the way that lecturers and adjunct faculty are kept in line by
the lack of any job protections.

“First class and second class is the crux of the matter,” Modirzadeh said.
“We can jostle around issues of race, but it comes down to structural
inequities, and a culture where lecturers are treated as second-class
citizens. The university system is a microcosm of other systems. There’s no
time for anybody to trip on guilt.” In many ways Modirzadeh is also
questioning the academic and intellectual divisions between music
departments that center Western practices and theory, and ethnomusicology,
which embeds the study of non-Western traditions within a wider view of
cultural practices.

Cyrus GinwalaIt’s a debate that has roiled music departments since the
summer, when academics like CUNY music theorist Philip Ewell called on his
field to dismantle its “white racial frame” while unpacking the racist
assumptions of foundational music theorist Heinrich Schenker (1868- 1935)
in this widely discussed article
<https://mtosmt.org/issues/mto.20.26.2/mto.20.26.2.ewell.html>. For
Ginwala, who recently started his second three-year term as the School of
Music’s director, the student experience is his primary focus. He
emphasizes that discussions about equity and inclusion are just getting
started, but the end result has to focus on student success.

“What do you need to do to attain and graduate student musicians with a
curriculum where they see themselves represented and they’re successful
once they leave?” Ginwala said. “That’s the lens to rethink what we’re
doing for the students we actually serve.”

With 11 full-time professors and some 30 adjuncts, the music department’s
faculty is overwhelmingly dedicated to Western classical music (despite a
handful of jazz artists). Flutist/percussionist John Calloway
<https://music.sfsu.edu/people/faculty/john-calloway> has led the
Afro-Cuban ensemble class at SFSU for more than two decades. A lone voice
in the School of Music for a spectacularly rich tradition with an extensive
following in the Bay Area, he sees a longstanding dynamic where classical
music courses get the lion’s share of support and everyone else gets crumbs.

John Calloway“If you’re just offering one class in mariachi or highlife
<https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Highlife> and there’s no training like what
you’d get in Western European music, the likelihood of it being rigorous is
slim,” he said.

Calloway says he’s hesitated to make waves in the past, but with
Modirzadeh’s letter he felt he had to weigh in. “I’ve never felt an overt
threat about speaking out, but the culture of being a lecturer is that you
have less rights and serve at the pleasure of school,” he said. “It’s the
old system. No one’s mean to you, but if you start rocking the boat, people
get scared. That’s what’s happening now.”

The music school isn’t the only SFSU program undergoing a reckoning,
according to SFSU Asian American Studies Professor Wei Ming Dariotis
<https://aas.sfsu.edu/dariotis-wei-ming>. But the school of music has been
on her radar for some two decades, “through what I’ve heard both from
colleagues and students,” she said.

Wei Ming Dariotis“One of the principles we use is inclusivity and
belonging,” continued Dariotis, who is a member of the newly created music
department task force via her position as faculty director of the Center
for Equity and Excellence in Teaching and Learning. “Unfortunately, I’ve
heard stories from students that their vocal style was not something that
could be supported in the School of Music. In particular, students who sang
with more of a gospel style, typically students of color, quite often Asian
American students.”

Mali Carter, an aspiring jazz pianist from Oakland who graduated with a
bachelor’s in music from SFSU in 2016, describes a troubled student career
with a lack of support at almost every level. She felt dismissed by several
faculty members and isolated academically. “Within the music department I
was pretty much the only Black woman jazz pianist,” she said, adding that
it wasn’t until she connected with Modirzadeh that she had an ally in
seeking an alternative path to the degree.

“He stepped in and was a real mentor for me when I was having lots of
trouble in the music department being treated fairly,” Carter said, “It was
a hard-fought degree to get. I ended up taking some modified theory
classes, as opposed to Western theory.”

SFSU Creative Arts campus

Whatever problems might exist in the School of Music, the program continues
to attract top-flight student talent. San Francisco native Sam Reider
<http://www.samreidermusic.com/>, a pianist and accordionist steeped in
jazz and an international array of folkloric traditions, moved back to the
Bay Area from Brooklyn in December. He’s performed around the world under
the auspices of the U.S. Department of State as a musical ambassador,
engaging in musical exchanges with artists in China, Laos, Vietnam,
Estonia, Turkey, Azerbaijan, and beyond.

Sam Reider

Grounded by the pandemic, he decided to pursue a master’s degree in
composition at SFSU to develop techniques as a composer and orchestrator.
He’s looking to use the tools of European classical composition in his work
with folkloric artists.

“I see cross-cultural collaboration as a potent way forward in this
discussion of what constitutes American culture,” said Reider, who’s
releasing an album next year with Venezuelan cuatro master Jorge Glem and
special guest Paquito D’Rivera, the legendary Cuban reed player. “If I was
designing my perfect music program it would align closely with all the
things in Hafez’s letter, with an equitable distribution of resources for
traditions from Africa, Asia, the Middle East, South America, in
conversation with European classical music.”

The School of Music’s history embodies the conflicting impulses that are
playing out once again in the era of Black Lives Matter. Jazz is now a
well-established part of the program, but the school’s most famous and
influential graduate, saxophonist John Handy <http://www.johnhandy.com/>,
faced outright hostility as a student in the 1950s. He had already made a
series of epochal recordings with bassist/composer Charles Mingus in 1959,
including the Columbia albums *Mingus Ah Um* and *Mingus Dynasty*, when he
endured a Kafkaesque ordeal in which hostile professors and staff
undermined his progress toward a degree.

John Handy

“I took every course they had to get a B.A.,” Handy told me in an interview
several years ago. “I finally graduated at the age of 30 and I had 174
units. But you never forget your alma mater, no matter what happens.”

By the late 1960s, in the wake of the Third World Liberation Front Strike
SFSU was looking to diversify the faculty, and the School of Music hired
Handy to teach a jazz history class. He held the position for more than a
decade, often turning students away from the over-subscribed course. After
he retired, Handy was invited back as an artist-in-residence, while Keith
Morrison, then dean for the College of Creative Arts, saw to it that the
school honored Handy with two jazz festivals in his name.

Handy served as a mentor for Modirzadeh when he joined the SFSU faculty in
1998, and has continued to provide guidance throughout the years. Given his
pioneering work with Indian sarod master Ali Akbar Khan, Handy provides an
ideal model for the spirit of inquiry and openness that could guide his
alma mater’s evolution. There’s no consensus amongst the faculty about what
kind of changes should be made. The faculty is an uncomfortable place,”
Modirzadeh said. “It’s not personal. It’s structural. We’ve got brilliant,
devoted faculty. Many are second to none in their fields and great artists
who are loved by their students. We’re at this beautiful moment, but we
have to trust each other.”

A Los Angeles native based in the Berkeley area since 1996, Andrew Gilbert
<https://www.sfcv.org/author/andrew-gilbert> covers jazz, international
music and dance for KQED's *California Report*, *The Mercury News*, *San
Francisco Chronicle*, *Berkeleyside* <https://www.berkeleyside.com/> and
other publications.
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